Sushi for every one

From tomorrow, the most fashionable eating experience in London will involve picking raw fish from a slow-moving conveyor belt. Welcome to Yo! Sushi, the latest product of the Japanese genius for linking industrial technology and sensual pleasure. By Peter Popham
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The Independent Online
Like a chicken plucker, you sit at a bar facing a conveyor belt, rubbing shoulders with the stranger on the next stool, and the colour- coded plates of raw fish and rice come trundling along, each protected by a little plastic hood; when you see one you fancy, you make a grab for it. This is the lunchtime experience at Soho's newest and most brashly modern eatery, the gruesomely named Yo! Sushi, which opens formally tomorrow.

One of Japan's most striking contributions to the modern world is what one might call the industrialisation of sensuality. With a long succession of inventions and adaptations, including personal stereos, home video, karaoke systems and fax machines, they have demonstrated a genius for yoking industrial technology to intimate and sensual purposes. Kaiten (conveyor belt) sushi, invented in the northern city of Sendai in 1968 and now ubiquitous in Japan, with more than 2,000 shops, is one that is just now arriving in the UK.

Japan is still full of traditional sushi-ya, sushi bars, places where one sits at a bar of unvarnished wood that has been scrubbed a painful shade of white by the apprentice-slaves and where the presiding chef conducts himself like the priest of some alarming, occult sect, bellowing at his underlings, sharpening a fearsome selection of knives and with swift, deft strokes slicing the fatty tuna or octopus or cuttlefish to the customer's muttered orders.

There is usually the sound of running water in the background and the gentle rustling of bamboo; green tea, called agari, is served boiling hot in huge, chunky mugs; the arrival of the bill is liable to spoil the experience if you are not mentally prepared for it, but an evening at a good sushi-ya is for many people a distillation of all that is most treasurable about Japan.

The imperative, for hygienic reasons, of extreme freshness, and the amazing variety of edibles dragged up from the sea by Japanese trawlermen, has lent the eating of sushi in Japan a rich cultural particularity, a pervading connoisseurship, and an elaborate ceremonial. Sushi is always accompanied by green tea, and individual tastes are separated by nibbles of pickled ginger, freshening the palate for the new taste sensation that is about to hit it. Tokyo's best sushi-ya specialise in surprising their regular customers with rare treats such as fresh scallops, rare molluscs, sea urchin eggs, or anything else that the master can find in Tsukiji, the city's huge fish market, and put to use.

Kaiten sushi was the innovation that transformed sushi from an exquisite, intimate, expensive experience to a snack food with the convenience and mass appeal of hamburgers and noodles. Because sushi is eaten cold, it can truck along on the conveyor belt for some time without deteriorating; each serving is roughly the same size, so fits on a uniformly sized plate on the belt; and the special advantage of the belt system is that it allows customers to be impulsive, to grab on a whim. The direct relationship with the master is replaced by typically modern impersonality. The quality of the food is only a fraction of that found in a traditional sushi restaurant - but then, so is the price.

Sushi arrived in the West in a big way during the Eighties, when it became identified with high-earning New York yuppies. The fact that it survived this encounter is due to its healthiness, convenience and relative blandness: unlike spicy ethnic dishes, one can eat good sushi day after day after day without tiring of it. The first conveyor sushi restaurant in Britain opened in London's Liverpool Street station in 1994, but Yo! Sushi is the most ambitious attempt yet to turn sushi into a food with mainstream appeal in the UK.

In this it follows the lead of Wagamama, the huge, canteen-like Japanese/Chinese noodle restaurants that have caused such a sensation in the past few years. Although Wagamama sounds Japanese (the word means "selfish") and serves mostly Japanese versions of Chinese noodle dishes, it has broken out of the ghetto of ethnic dining to become truly international in appeal. Yo! Sushi, which has a menu closely based on Japanese sushi restaurants but no Japanese staff or Japanese design motifs, is aspiring to go the same way.

The man behind Yo! Sushi is Simon Woodroffe, and this is his first excursion into catering. Starting out as an assistant stage manager in the theatre, in the Eighties he became a leading designer of stages for rock 'n' roll shows, culminating in Live Aid. His introduction to Japan came three years ago, when he designed the set for an extraordinary concert outside one of Japan's oldest temples, featuring Buddhist monks, the Kodo drummers, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Jon Bon Jovi. His Japanese hosts introduced him to the phantasmagoric, Blade Runner scenery of downtown Osaka at night. A year later, when he was casting around for a retail project to launch, a Japanese friend in London advised him to open a kaiten sushi restaurant with waitresses in black PVC miniskirts. He declined the second half of the suggestion, but judges the first half to have been a winner.

As in Japan, the chief appeal of this sort of restaurant is that it is so easy. Instead of confronting a lengthy menu full of strange-looking, hard-to-pronounce words, all you do is sit, look, and grab what you fancy. If you are thirsty, each place-setting has its own tap, dispensing fizzy mineral water at pounds 1 a glass. Meanwhile, two robotic drinks trolleys continually circle the restaurant laden with beer, wine, sake and tea. Again, all you have to do is grab what you want as it passes; when you have had enough, the server tots up the colour-coded plates, the bottles and so on, and you pay at the check-out as you leave. As in Japan, there is no service charge and no tipping.

When I visited, three days before the official opening, Yo! Sushi still had some way to go before being fully functioning. As the basic constituents of sushi - flavoured rice, nori seaweed and raw fish - are repetitive, to make a tolerable meal you need a pretty wide variety of fish to choose from, but on Monday the choice was restricted to tuna (the sushi staple - here a rather garish orange), sweet omelette, strapped to its mounting of rice by a band of nori, white fish (hirama), prawn and salted mackerel. The flavour, both of fish and rice, was perfectly OK, however. Soon gourmet chefs will be installed to contribute delicacies such as ikura (salmon roe), uni (sea urchin) and toro (fatty tuna) to the conveyor belt, and Yo! Sushi will become a hard place to walk past.